Le Ricetti

Recipes - I once wrote a lot of them to earn my living. It's a meticulous business, not quite the doddle TV chefs might make it appear. Precision is all: measuring/weighing the ingredients, expressing exactly what to do in the clearest possible way, keeping scrupulously to a consistent style, testing for accuracy, stop-watching oven temperatures, cooking times, fiddling with garnishes for the perfect presentation. Novels with lots of food description in them can work well, I think. I've always liked the ones that integrate recipes seamlessly into the storyline. Celia Brayfield's recipes for hearty Basque dishes in Deep France: A Writer's Year in the Bearn (Macmillan, London 2012) are mouthwatering. And then there's Heartburn by Nora Ephron (Virago, London 2012). Who can ever forget what very good use Rachel made of her Key Lime pie?

In The Fortieth Part food - raw ingredients as well as dishes - gets many mentions. As a novel set in northern Italy with its abundant fruits, vegetables, river and sea fish, cheeses, hams and wines, a region of countless culinary delights, how could that not be?

Even the dishes that aren't eaten get an appetising write-up. Francesco tells us that on the night of the storm, 'The dish of beans gives off wisps of savoury steam, smells so good there must be a parsley sauce on it - but none of us stretches out a hand to dip in a spoon.'

Inside the flow of The Fortieth Part's story however, I just couldn't see a place to pause for detailed instruction on how to re-construct what characters are consuming. So I'm including two recipes here - with more to come later.

Both are typical dishes of Venice. Both the savoury and the sweet demonstrate the generous uses of spices and herbs to heighten flavor, that 'sweet/salt' combination which is so beloved by Venetians. And both are 'store cupboard' recipes since the dried salt cod will come to no harm kept lightly wrapped in foil - not in the refrigerator - for up to a year before you cook it. And after you've made the candied quince it'll have a long shelf life if sterilized glass jars are used when bottling it.

I hope you will enjoy trying them and wish you buon appetito!

CREAMED SALT COD

Creamed salt cod or baccala mantecato is a favourite of Venetians. In the fishmarket on the Rialto you'll see the rigid slabs of the dried cod piled up in heaps on the fishmongers' counters. It's come all the way from Norway. There's a long history of this nourishing foodstuff being traded between Norwegian ports and Venice.
In Part 3, Chapter 1, Uncle Gianbattista's pining for the taste of meat since it's nearing the end of the six week Lenten fasting. 'Easter can't come too soon,' he says. 'My mouth's drooling at the thought of lamb shanks roasting in a pan of lard. I'm already picturing myself at our feasting, tearing teeth into a guinea fowl's white breast'. Dining out with Francesco in Canareggio, he manages nevertheless to make short work of his fish supper: 'On the table between us we've a dish of Lenten fare, creamed salt cod, Venice-style. I'm ravenous and am having to eat fast, so Francesco doesn't get more than his share. With the bread I swipe some up and chew rapidly.'

You can serve baccala mantecato with fresh bread or on oatcakes or squares of toast as an appetizer or first course. Drizzle on some olive oil and sprinkle with coarsely chopped dill. As a main course, serve it with generous portions of grilled polenta and a rugola salad.

INGREDIENTS:

  • 1 kg salt cod
  • 500 ml milk - or enough to half-cover fish
  • 250 ml dry white wine
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon fresh garlic, finely minced
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried marjoram
  • 200-300 ml sunflower oil
  • Olive and chopped dill for serving

PREPARATION:

Plunge the pieces into a bowl of water. The cod needs to be soaked for a minimum of 2 days. Keep the bowl in the refrigerator. Throw out the water and replace with fresh at least six times over the 2 days. Your tastebuds will tell you when it's ready. Nibble at a little piece and if it's still very salty, keep on soaking. When the level of saltiness is just right and the fish has become soft and flexible, you're ready to begin.

METHOD:

  1. Cut the slabs into chunks. Place in a large saucepan. Pour in enough milk to come half way up the chunks.
  2. Add wine. If the fish is not entirely covered add water. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes until the fish is becoming translucent and will flake easily.
  3. Allow the fish to cool in the liquid. When cool enough to touch, remove the fish from the saucepan. Reserve the cooking liquid.
  4. Use a small sharp knife to peel the skin off the fish. Reserve a quarter of this for later.
  5. Pick over the flesh to flake, pulling it away from the bones. Place in large bowl. Using the fingers, check through the flesh to make sure you’ve removed all bones.
  6. With the sharp knife cut the reserved skin into tiny shreds and add to the flesh.
  7. Put 1 tablespoon of the sunflower oil in a small frying pan and sauté the onion until beginning to turn soft and golden. Add the garlic and sauté until soft. Add the nutmeg and marjoram and stir for 30 seconds to mix well
  8. Put the fish into a blender. Tip in the onion/garlic/spice/herb  mixture. Add 200 ml of the reserved cooking liquid and blend. Add 100 ml of the sunflower oil and blend again.
  9. Gradually add more oil, dripping it in a stream into the mixture, continuing to add and blend as the colour changes. The mixture will start to look white and fluffy – and slightly flecked due to the skin pieces and the marjoram. When it becomes creamy and soft you have added enough oil. Taste and if necessary, add salt and white pepper.
  10. Garnish with a drizzle of olive oil and sprinkling of chopped dill if serving immediately.
  11. Store in an airtight container if keeping in the refrigerator. Use within 3 days.

CANDIED QUINCE

Kindly Uncle G packs a jar of candied quince into his saddlebag, a gift from Venice for his sister in law, intended 'to satisfy Elisabetta's sweet tooth'.
The quince tree was first known in Turkey but it grows all over the south and is found in UK gardens too. The knobbly, yellow pear-shaped fruit ripens in the autumn.
Impossibly bitter to eat raw, transformation takes place when it's cooked with water and sugar, which serves to dramatically change its colour, texture, flavour and smell. Rosy pink, sweet and delicately scented, it can be used in several different ways.

The candied quince mixture is an excellent accompaniment to a cheeseboard. Or it can be mixed in with apple slices when making a pie or crumble.
If you prefer to eat it without its sticky juice than use a slotted spoon to remove from the liquid. (Use this liquid on yogurt or ice cream.) Tip a handful of caster sugar on to a sheet of greaseproof paper and toss the quince pieces around in it until they are well coated. Keep them on a covered plate in the refrigerator until ready to eat them.
If you like the idea of quince jelly you can take the softened fruit (after reaching step 5 below), place it in a muslin bag and let the juice drip through into a bowl. Then re-heat this juice with another 250 g sugar, fast boiling until it's reached a sticky consistency. Transfer to sterilized jars (see step 6). Serve on toast or buttered crumpets.

INGREDIENTS:

  • 500 g ripe quinces
  • 250 ml sweet white wine
  • 250 ml water
  • 250 g granulated sugar
  • 5 cloves
  • 2 sticks of cinnamon
  • 1 pod of vanilla, sliced open so the seeds are revealed
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice

PREPARATION:

Use a large sharp knife to peel the quinces and cut each fruit into quarters. Remove the cores, and cut the quince sections into small cubes.

METHOD:

  1. Take a large saucepan and add the water, white wine and sugar. Over medium heat stir briskly until the sugar has dissolved. Add the quinces, cloves, cinnamon, vanilla and  lemon juice and stir well.
  2. Turn the heat to low and cook the mixture 1.5-2 hours. Stir from time to time, making sure the quinces are evenly coated with liquid.
  3. During the cooking process the quinces will turn bright pink. The sugar/water/spice mix will reduce to a thick, syrupy liquid. Once in a while remove a piece of quince using a slotted spoon and test consistency. When cooked the piece should be chewy and be jellied in texture. Towards the end of the cooking period check more frequently. Overcooking will make the pieces hard. If the syrup gets very thick while the quince is still not tender, add additional water.
  4. When the desired texture has been reached, remove the saucepan from the heat and allow the contents to cool.
  5. Remove the cloves, cinnamon sticks and vanilla pod.
  6. Spoon into glass jars that have been sterilized. You’ll need to wash the jars and their lids in hot soapy water, but do not dry them. Instead, place them upside down on a roasting tray while still wet. Place tray in oven preheated to 160-180ºC. Leave for 15 minutes. Fill the jars not quite up to the top, leaving 1/2 cm gap at the top between the preserve and the lid. While still hot, cover the jars with their lids. The quince should keep for 6 months if stored in a cool, dark place.
  7. If storing the quince mixture in the refrigerator keep it in an airtight container and eat within two weeks.